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Going back to university as a mature student: Tips for handling the drop in income

Before I went back to university, I had a full time job. I quite liked it, and it paid enough for me to put money aside for my tuition fees. When I quit that job and signed up to be a student again, the only income I had to live on was my student loan: a variable amount that seems to be between £8000 and £9000 a year. That's £8000 or £9000 a year to live on, in London. Nope, not good.

While I was never a big spender, seeing my income cut to £700 or so a month meant I had to cut back. It's a very, very tight belt now. I'm practically bisected by the tightness of the belt. Here's everything I learnt about how to keep a handle on your spending, whether you're off to university for the first time, or you're just saving a few quid here and there.

1. Start a budget
You probably know this one, and if you know this one, you probably rolled your eyes. Budgeting is not anyone's idea of fun, but it is pretty essential. Once you know how much you have coming in, and how much you have to spend on necessaries like rent, council tax, and electricity, you know how much you have to put towards your savings, or spend on a new coat, or whatever you want to do with your cash. Loads of people seem to swear by YNAB (You Need A Budget), which you can try for free for two months, or for longer if you're a student. YNAB has loads of great advice and tutorials about managing your money, and it's a great way of getting the most out of every last penny. I found it a bit hectic to use, so I'm sticking with the slightly less exciting PearBudget. You can sign up for their monthly service (which costs money) or download their spreadsheet (which doesn't). Nope, budgeting isn't sexy, but it's a lot more fun than trying to work out how to pay your bills when there's 5p left in the bank!  Getting your budget straight will help you make your money last as long as it needs, so there's no pre-student-loan-payday panic.

2. Have one really bad day
Most utilities providers (your electric, gas, broadband, phone, and all that sort of fun and games) will let you choose which day you pay them, so you can arrange to have all your direct debits come out on the same day each month. I found having all the bills come out on one day meant you have a better idea of how much money you have left once you've taken care of the essentials. This method might not work for everyone - if you're paid weekly, it's probably not for you! - but I find it really helps.

3. Set aside money for wasting
Even the best budgeters can feel a bit worn out by only spending money on essentials. Sometimes you just need a few quid to blow on something completely non-essential. It doesn't have to be a lot of cash, whatever you can fit into your budget - for me, it's £10 every now and again - but you need to have some money to spend without worrying. Stick 'spending on nonsense' into your budget and enjoy spending as you please. My vice? Random vegan ingredients. I'm powerless to resist a new vegan cheese, and thanks to the 'spending on nonsense' category, I can still afford to give into my cashew cheese cravings.

4. Take a run up
You can just about survive on a student loan, if you're lucky, but that's about it. There's no spare cash if your boiler blows up or you need some dental work done -- or even if you just fancy a holiday. UCAS applications for most university courses close the January before the course starts, so chances are you'll have a few months between knowing you've got a place and having to give up your job and start your course. Use those months to squirrel away as much cash as you can, so you've got an emergency fund in place before you jack in your job for good. A lot of money-saving blogs extol the virtues of a side hustle (a part-time job, really) and most courses should give you enough spare hours to do at least a bit of work. I've been able to work every year of my course so far, and apart from the money, I like keeping my hand in in old job. Starting afresh in a completely new field left me feeling a little unmoored, while freelancing in my old job reminds me I used to be competent at something.

5. Set your expectations, and anyone else's
Going from a full-time wage to a student loan meant I had to couldn't do all the things I used to. if you're used to going out for dinner every time you meed up with a certain friend, it can feel quite tempting to keep going for meals even when it makes your budget creak. I ended up having a few conversations with friends that went 'mind if we just stay in tonight? I'll cook tea... ' It felt a bit cringey to admit that my new found love of staying home was due to my lack of cash rather than a deep and abiding love for my flat, but the cringe was entirely mine - my friends didn't care in the least.

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  1. Sounds like you do a good job of tightening the belt. I like to know when bills are due (and I have a bad time of year that I know I need to prepare for when lots of yearly bills come in) and I like to have a buffer account that keeps me afloat in bad times (after too much time paying off credit card bills after youthful travels)


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